W. Edwards Deming: 1900-1993

Article excerpt

William Edwards Deming, who was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on the 14th of October 1900, has been honored throughout the world as a "quality-management guru." Yet, until the end of his life he insisted upon being known as a "Consultant in Statistical Studies," the title that appeared on his letterhead. His path to the eminence that he attained as a statistician was circuitous and full of serendipity:

After Ed Deming's graduation from the University of Wyoming in 1921 as an engineer, he remained there another year to study mathematics. It was during that time that, as he once told me, he received a letter from the Colorado School of Mines informing him that he was known to be a good flute player and that the professor of physics wanted to have a band and therefore would like him to come to teach. He accepted the invitation and, after a year, decided to get a master's degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Colorado. Just before he completed his degree, one of his professors who had studied at Yale with Willard Gibbs, a famous mathematician and physicist, recommended him to his alma mater. Yale subsequently offered him free tuition and a job as a part-time instructor, both of which were eagerly accepted.

Upon finishing the requirements for his Ph.D. at Yale in 1928, Ed Deming began his career in government as a mathematical physicist in the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and he re mained in that position until 1939. His 38 publications during the period had to do principally with the physical properties of matter, but there were several that reflected his interest in statistical methodology. I once asked him why he, a mathematical physicist, became a statistician. His answer was quite involved.

Courses in engineering and surveving led me to the theory of

errors, and in studying physics and mathematics, I learned a lot

of probability. Kinetic theory of gases is a theory of probability.

So are thermodynamics and astronomy. And so is geodesy, involving

measurement of the earth's surface for the purpose of

figuring the curvature or other characteristics of the earth. It makes

use of "least squares." And I had very good teachers in least


When people had problems with expenmental data, I just

worked on them and found myself able to make a contribution,

of thought anyway. And I suppose that's the way I got eased into


Analysis of results of experimental work in bacteriology and chemistry gave him a chance to learn more about the statistical adjustment of data. There were three papers on "The Application of Least Squares," published in the Philosophical Magazine. In his book, Statistical Adjustment of Data, published in 1943, he brought together, in readily usable form, the substance of these papers and of the earlier literature and his own studies on the subject. This text is still frequently consulted for guidance on the application of the method of least squares in various different situations.

From 1930 through 1946, Ed Deming was a special lecturer on mathematics and statistics in the Graduate School of the National Bureau of Standards. His courses, given from B to 9 A.M. at the Bureau, later inspired many lectures and articles by his students. These paved the way for the establishment in 1947 of the Statistical Engineering Laboratory within the Bureau of Standards. During an overlapping period that extended from 1933 through 1953, he was head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the Graduate School of the USDA and made major contributions to the mathematical and statistical education of a whole generation. In 1936, he went to London to study the theory of statistics with Ronald Fisher at University College, the University of London.

While at University College, Ed Deming met and attended lectures by Jerzy Neyman, who had been Head of the Biometrics Laboratory of the Necki Institute in Warsaw, Poland. …